Monday, March 2, 2015

Unpopular leadership style hurts Kerala's CPI-M. Will communism's loss become BJP's gain?


Kerala could well become another Bengal for the Communist Party of India Marxist. The party's state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, demitted office last week after a 17-year reign. The party lost ground during that period, though the initial years were promising. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the first after he had fully settled down to the job, Kerala's Left Front won 18 of 20 seats. In 2009, with his style of functioning a talking point, the result was 4 out of 20. In 2014, the last election on his watch, the score was 6.

The period also saw divisions, splits and open fighting within the party as never before. Some local units rebelled, some leaders quit, some quit and bargained their way back, some formed parallel parties and some got murdered. Violent clashes between CPI-M followers and followers of other parties became common. PV stood firm as a rock, stressing his party's correctness on disputed issues and accusing others of trying to tarnish his and the party's image. He asserted his power to enforce discipline.

One man declined to accept what he called the secretary's dictatorial style. V. S. Achuthanandan was not just another leader. Twenty years senior to PV, VS is a mass leader whose easy ways and support to popular causes have turned him into a darling of the common man. PV saw this popularity as blocking his own (PV's) chances of becoming chief minister and carried on a sustained campaign to devalue VS. In the 2011 Assembly election he went so far as to deny VS a ticket. The public uproar was such that the strong man was forced to retreat and let VS run. But party-level vilification of VS continued.

At last week's party conference VS was publicly belittled. He sat alone most of the time. No one except Sitaram Yechury greeted him. In his four-hour speech, PV attacked him by name; it's not trivial words that must be used against VS, he said. A resolution was passed by the party's State Secretariat accusing VS of deteriorating to an anti-party mentality. As the attacks rose to a crescendo, VS left the meeting and did not return. The gathering was stunned. General Secretary Prakash Karat formally phoned VS and asked him to return. VS replied that when a resolution was on record describing him as anti-party, he should not be at the party's session.

Earlier VS had sent a report to the central leadership saying that the official report was meant only to justify the state secretary's leadership and dwelling at length on the murder of T.P Chandrasekharan, a CPI-M leader who had left and organised a rival party, attracting, to the surprise of all, considerable following in certain areas. He was waylaid one night and attacked with long knives, splitting his head and body into multiple pieces.

"Even when our Government was in power", said VS who was the Chief Minister then, "there were intelligence reports about a conspiracy to kill Chandrasekharan... Along with seven hired killers, three CPI-M leaders were also sentenced to life imprisonment. We keep on saying that the party had no role in the murder. At the same time the party secretary keeps justifying the kingpin of the conspiracy". VS also said that the party lost ground in elections because traditional allies in the LDF were alienated by the secretary's arrogance while deals were struck with dubious leaders like Abdul Nasar Madani.

The charges and countercharges have a direct bearing on the party's credibility and influence among the people. The PV style of confrontationism may not be visible now because his successor, K. Balakrishnan is a smiling leader. But KB is a product of PV, and PV is certain to be active behind the scenes pursuing his goal of chief ministership. The elimination of VS was a necessary preparatory step to achieve that aim. To some extent that may now be within reach. But the loss of ground already confronting the CPI-M and PV's continuing authoritarian style that makes all but his close allies uncomfortable cannnot be brushed aside. Political Kerala has lost its optimism about the CPI-M. It will get worse for the party if VS is not around to win votes for it. The Congress making the people more angry with more mistakes is PV's and the CPI-M's best hope. But much of that anger may benefit the BJP next time. What the PV era proves is that in the CPI-M, too, individuals prosper at the expense of their party.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Morarji rubbished India's early defence efforts; new moves must make up for lost decades


At the Aero India show in Bangalore, Narendra Modi made a statement that could well be a national motto. Said he: "I don't want India to be No. 1 in the import of defence equipment... We should export". This is an epiphany that took some six decades to come to our leaders. Import of fighter planes, submarines and field guns meant not only big money going to foreign companies, but also dependence on those companies in a military emergency. India, a leader in space technology and rocket science, has had for quite a while the wherewithal to become self-reliant in defence needs. What was lacking was a resolve on the part of our policy makers.

That seems to be happening at last. The day before Modi's statement, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared projects worth more than Rs 1 lakh crore to provide muscle to the Indian Navy. In the works are indigenously manufactured stealth frigates, diesel-electronic submarines and nuclear powered submarines with ballistic missile capability. Big ticket assets of this kind take time to get commissioned. The first of six advanced stealth diesel-electronic subs on order will, for example, take 10 years to build.

If such decisions were taken 10 years ago, we would have been reasonably strong by now. If decisions were taken 20 years ago, we would have been stronger still. The tragedy is that even 50 years ago we consciously avoided taking vital decisions on defence self-sufficiency because our leaders were pre-occupied with petty rivalries. Our very first Defence Minister had drawn up plans for local manufacture of basic defence equipment for which we had the capacity at that time. But the plans were undermined by the Finance Minister because he disliked the Defence Minister.

In fact important people disliked V.K.Krishna Menon who had many dislikable dimensions to his intellectual brilliance. But the man was a visionary and had initiated policies based on a principle meant to make the country strong: India's defence system must have its own industrial base. He made plans to convert the ordnance factories into major manufacturing hubs. But he was denied the all-important budgetary allocations. Finance Minister Morarji Desai's antipathy to Krishna Menon was garnished by his belief that India, the land of ahimsa, should not spend big on military paraphernalia. He even considered spying as immoral. By cutting down on budgets, he reduced India's intelligence agency, RAW, to a skeleton. In line with his moral posture, he told Pakistan's Zia-ul-Huk about Pakistani agents working for RAW. The under-cover agents were shot. Morarji became the only Indian national to receive Pakistan's highest civilian honour, the Nishan-e-Pakistan.

It was left to R. Venkataraman, the 8th President of India, to put things in perspective and on record. He was himself Defence Minister from 1982 to 84, thus getting an insider's view of what had happened and not happened. Saying that our defence policy acquired, under Krishna Menon, direction as well as momentum, Venkataraman, wrote: "Krishna Menon was the first to acknowledge that the defence production base, in the ultimate analysis, could not be divorced from the economic and industrial infrastructure of the country".

Fifty-eight long years after Krishna Menon became Defence Minister, the fundamental principle he tried to establish has finally been given official imprimatur. The men who did so are dramatically different from him, their ideology diametrically opposed to his. The famous Leftist of the 1950s and the Rightists of today put the national interest first and that is why their ideas for the country's defence have coalesced. The present Defence Minister took decisions while his recent predecessors tried to put off decisions. A late start is better than no start.

The time could not be more propitious. The Brahmos supersonic cruise missile was a declaration of India's homegrown capabilities. The expanded Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai, the Garden Reach in Kolkatta, the Cochin Shipyard and the "secretive" Vizag submarine facility proclaim the strides made by the public sector. The private sector has grown big enough to have, according to experts, the capability to build 80 percent of the navy's equipment needs and 75 percent of the army's. Players like Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (electronic warfare systems), L & T (complete naval vessels among other things) and Bharat Forge (artillery systems) are examples of what is already under way. Anil Ambani Group is planning a 5000-acre integrated defence and aerospace smart city with its own airfield, research centre and auxiliary units. This is not just Make In India. This is Making India.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is India finally changing? It was the powerless who won power in Delhi. That's a new game.



The Indian voter is an astonishing creature. He looks everything that he is not. The men and women in those long, winding queues before polling booths appear docile and innocent, a submissive type who wouldn't harm an ant. Get closer and examine their faces; they still look like a gentle, easily handled and undemanding lot, a flock of sheep, really. When they come out of the booths, their fingers stained with democracy, their faces are as expressionless as Manmohan Singh's.

Then the results come.

Then shock waves spread.

Because the world learns that the sheepish-looking herds were in fact tigers, that they had caused bloodshed in the booths, that this docile, expressionless, innocent citizens are giant killers, that they not only have the power to strike but also the wisdom to know when and where to strike.

Remember 1977? Indira Gandhi, the invincible Indira Gandhi, made yet more impregnable by the Emergency, was given a beating by the voter that shocked the world. The voter had no one in particular to vote for. But he had someone to vote against. When those who assumed power by default turned out to be a circus troupe, the same voter had no hesitation in booting them out and bringing back a subdued, if also more insecure, Indira Gandhi. The same thunder was heard last May. To The Family that held the Congress Party in bondage, the people have been saying what Cromwell told Britain's Long Parliament in 1653: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go". But The Family wouldn't go. So the Mighty Indian Voter punished the Congress so summarily that it could not even become the official opposition in Parliament. The Family still wouldn't bulge. The voter, this time really angry, penalised the party with the biggest humiliation in its history - a duck in the Delhi election.

Will The Family and the party get the message at least now? Seems unlikely if the staged clamour for Priyanka Vadra is any indication. But then, will the AAP get the message? Will the BJP? The almost unbelievable size of the AAP's victory points, above all, to people's yearning for an end to conventional politics and its conventional evils. The message for the winner and the loser is that Indians are tired of a system where money decides who contests and who wins elections, a system that perpetuates the world's most miserable poverty levels even as the number of billionaires rises. The AAP offered a ray of hope with its simple declarations in support of the poor and against corruption.

Similar hopes triggered also the landslide that carried Narendra Modi to power last May. Those hopes have not evaporated and Modi's personal popularity remains high. But the Hindutva fanatics upstaged him. (The latest from Sadhvi Prachi is that ghar wapsi will continue and that Mahatma Gandhi should not be called Father of the Nation because Vir Savarkar and Bhagat Singh deserve more credit for India's independence). Modi's inability to control the fanatics made the middleclass seriously worried about the direction in which political India was moving. The BJP's mortifying 3/70 score is a projection of this worry.

Has the AAP also, like the BJP, raised hopes too high? Power at half rate, free water and hundreds of new schools are easier said than done. The consolation is that delay in the delivery on promises will be excused by the people if sincerity of purpose is transparent and convincing. If the Kejriwal Government eliminates everyday corruption and is seen to be doing so, half the battle will be won.

It is also important to recognise that the AAP's triumph in Delhi has implications beyond Delhi. The Anna Hazare movement was the first indication in post-Emergency India of public awakening for change. Although that movement dissipated, the realisation that ordinary people could make their voices heard became deep-rooted. The AAP was carried to victory this time by ordinary people, many of whom gave up professional positions to devote themselves to the party. Volunteers came from all parts of the country, meeting their expenses and expecting nothing in return. After Gandhi, and then Jayaprakash Narayan, this is the first time that volunteerism is contributing to the making of India. The signs of change in the political landscape cannot be clearer. That astonishing creature, the Mighty Indian Voter, will not rest until the system is cleansed.



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

As AAP & Obama & China & Pakistan pull at him, can Modi seize "Opportunity of the Century"?


Savour the big 'breaking news' items of last week: The dirtiest election in Delhi's history; simultaneous moves by China, Russia and America to keep Pakistan on par with India; Sakshi Maharaj cautioning Narendra Modi that if he ignores Hindu nationalist demands, his Government will spin in circles; a "printing error" in the BJP's vision statement that depicts citizens of Northeastern states as immigrants. That about sums up the idea of India today. Will all the skills and the charisma of the Prime Minister be enough to withstand this typhoon of illwinds and steer India forward?

The Delhi elections should have been a tame affair given Modi's towering image and the Aam Admi Party's eroded credibility following past mistakes. But then strange things happened. That the tortoise caught up with the hare became apparent when the battle between Kejriwal and Bedi ended and a war between Kejriwal and Modi began. It was a flustered BJP that went all out in the last days of the war, and the fluster will continue because, whatever be the results, dissensions will haunt the party. It was to end infighting that the top leadership brought in Kiran Bedi as the Chief Minister candidate. That move backfired. State-level leaders objected to the imposition of a "rank outsider" while cadres publicly protested against the party. Add to this Sakshi Maharaj daring to warn the Prime Minister, and another Sadhvi asking Hindus to produce more children. It looks like Modi's writ does not have the same effect in the Hindi belt as it had in Gujarat. He must assert his authority soon lest his development agenda is compromised.

Modi's foreign policy agenda also needs to be rescued from his disputable partners. Within days of returning from his dazzling receptions in India, Barack Obama announced a six-fold increase in America's military aid to Pakistan, an impressive $ 263 million for 2016. He added another $ 334 million for economic aid and $ 143 million "for counter-terrorism" whatever that means. This is at a time when individuals and organisations America has declared as terrorist roam safely in Pakistan.

The US knows better than any other country that Pakistan's military establishment has only one enemy and that is not "extremism" as the US President put it in his budget speech. It is strange that Obama's policy objective in Pakistan is to build up its military prowess while his objective in India is to push American investments on terms that are unfavourable to India. The two nuclear reactor designs India is asked to buy, for Gujarat and Andhra, are both expensive and untested, according to experts in the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Is this the same Obama who advised us against religious splintering? Advice delivered, he goes and provides muscle to the one country that devotes all its energy to splintering India along religious lines.

The intricacies involved in international power politics came to the fore when Russia and China responded to India's dance with America, Russia with action and China with nuanced statements. Russian disenchantment began from Manmohan Singh's time. Pakistan moved in smartly. Sensing America's newfound interest in the "pivot" policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region and Russia's growing isolation from NATO over Ukraine, Pakistan made overtures to Moscow. The response was a Russian offer of combat helicopters ignoring Indian protests. Last November Russia went so far as to sign a defence pact with Pakistan. We lost an all-weather friend while gaining a fair-weather one who equates us with Pakistan.

China's early reactions to Indian hosannas to Obama were strongly worded though within the limits of diplomacy. We should not forget that China is ahead of us militarily, strategically and economically. It also has the means to pin us down all along our land borders. But it wants to carry India along so that American-led plans to dominate Asia-Pacific can be nullified. President Xi with Russian support wants to get India into the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. Most importantly, China has begun to show sensitivity to India's worries about the Maritime Silk Route, according to Chinese official media. Xi told Sushma Swaraj: "Both sides should grab the opportunity of the century". For Modi to make his moves at that level of political artistry, the first thing he should do is to replace symbolism with substance. Symbolism is an artifice anyone can work up. See Pakistan's decision to hold a military parade next month with Xi Jinping as the chief guest. The parity game played to perfection.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Communalism's rise in India, now a world concern. Modi can yet beat the Umashankars & Togadias


In the end, in one astonishing moment, with no prior warning of any kind, Barack Obama changed the entire narrative of his triumphant India visit. Out of public reckoning went nuclear deals and defence pacts and investment schemes and climate negotiations; in came, of all things, religion. For reasons that will probably never be known, the US President got into a warning mode. India would only succeed, he said, if it did not splinter along religious lines. He talked of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, of everyone's right to practise any faith or no faith at all without fear or discrimination, of no society being immune from the darkest impulses of man. With words as sharp as knifepoints, Obama jumped straight into the vortex of the controversies raging in India over communal polarisation, hate speeches, vapasi conversions and the lot.

It was a parting shot from Obama. Argumentative Indians immediately began speculating why he said what he said. Reflecting their own ideological leanings, some said it was a timely warning to Hindutva extremists, others said Obama was speaking to the extremist constituency in his own country. A television frequenter of the BJP went ludicrous when he said that Obama was sending a message to the Owaisis of Hyderabad and to Digvijay Singh. The thickness of party spokesmen is a marvel of our times.

Interestingly, no one has talked about a possible Modi hand in the Obama act. Yet, can such a likelihood be ruled out? Narendra Modi is the shrewdest politician in today's India. It is generally believed that he is unhappy about the Hindutva zealots creating confusion and resentment across the country and diverting attention from the development agenda he is trying to focus on. For internal party reasons, he has been unable to publicly chastise the hatemongers. Can it be that he encouraged the idea of a public chastisement by his friend Barack so as to strengthen his position vis a vis the zealots in his party? We will get a clue if the fanatic fringe now goes into silent mode. If they don't and Modi continues to keep mum about their divisive actions and statements, then we'll have to conclude that Obama consciously chose to express world concern about growing communalism in India even at the risk of appearing to interfere in the domestic politics of his host country.

Communalism has been a feature of public life in India from before independence. But it remained under control for decades, including during the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee. The BJP's triumph last year, however, made extremist Hindutva elements feel free to translate their extremism into practice with immunity. It is no secret that Indian industry was dismayed by the potential impact rising communal unrest could have on the country's business climate. It is now clear that those worries are shared by friendly countries abroad as well. Perhaps Obama was being a good friend in drawing attention to the problem in a manner that was impossible to ignore.

But he as well as fundamentalists and liberals in India must know that communalism is a many-headed hydra. The excesses of the Dalit-turned-Christian IAS officer C. Umashankar highlight this in disturbing ways. A committed Bible preacher, he is vehement in his argument that his constitutional rights supercede his service rules. His supporters say, for example, that Hindu IAS officers attend pujas during office hours. The comparison is self-defeating. Umashankar can go to church even during office hours if he wishes. But it is altogether different if he insists on holding evangelical meetings with a dogmatic assertion that the Bible alone is true. It is humanly impossible for such a fanatical believer to take administrative decisions that are neutral and fair. When Umashankar says that as he prays people are cured of their illnesses, what is the difference between him and Praveen Togadia who says that development is meaningless without Hindu rashtra? In fact Umashankar is more dangerous than Togadia because he has power while Togadia is all bombast. If Umashankar has the courage of his conviction, the first thing he should do is to leave the IAS. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mathew 6:24).

How timely was Obama's cautionary note about the dangers of India splintering. Jesus Christ will survive the evangelical Umashankars, just as Ram will survive the politicised Ram bhakts. The big question is whether India will survive with sufficient energy to pay attention to Modi's development mantra. The answer lies with Modi - for a while yet.